When discussing the films of Alfred Hitchcock critics and fans tend to focus on his later efforts. It’s perfectly understandable; few directors can boast as stellar a run as Hitch had in the fifties and sixties. From Rear Window to The Birds he had a decade of continuous masterpieces. Even when his earlier films are discussed, more often mentioned is The 39 Steps or Notorious. While one of the greatest directors in history never won a competitive Oscar, one of his films did take home the award for Best Picture. That film, 1940’s Rebecca, marked Hitchcock’s first American film and is, in a historical perspective, an important milestone in his career. And that’s usually where the praise ends. Rebecca is criminally underrated by critics and most fans, and stands as one of the moodiest, most gothic and beautifully shot films in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. It’s a masterpiece that fully deserves a place along side such masterworks as Psycho and North by Northwest.
When we first meet him, recent widower Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier) stands perched on a precipice, literally and figuratively. Distraught and trying to numb his pain with the bright lights Monte Carlo, Maxim is at his lowest point and contemplating suicide. When a young, naïve girl (Joan Fontaine) beguiles him he initiates a whirlwind courtship that culminates in a quick marriage that whisks her away from a tepid life as a paid companion to the boorish, obnoxious Edyth Van Hopper (Florence Bates). After a storybook honeymoon the couple returns to Maxim’s home, the stately Manderly, in the English countryside. There the new Mrs. De Winter must contend with the stern, hostile head of household, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), and the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, whose presence looms over Manderly and whose influence can almost manifestly be felt in the actions of Mrs. Danvers.
Despite the sincerity and innocence of the new Mrs. De Winter, Danvers seems to have it out for her the minute the girl sets foot in Manderly. Danvers is constantly undermining Mrs. De Winter’s already fragile sense of self-worth by subtly underlining the many ways she feels Maxim’s new wife fails to measure up. The younger Mrs. De Winter does her best to assert herself as the new head of the household, only to have it blow up in her face in spectacular fashion – the new Mrs. De Winter winds up humiliated and emotionally shattered when, after insisting that she host a costume ball at Manderly, is tricked by Danvers her into dressing up in a costume Rebecca had worn only a year earlier.
When the wreck of Rebecca’s boat – thought forever lost at sea – washes up on shore near Manderly, it brings with it dark secrets Maxim hoped would stay buried. These revelations coax an extortionist snake out of the grass and threaten to tear the newlywed couple apart forever. It seems that, even in death, Rebecca De Winter will have the final victory.
It was golden age super producer David O. Selznick who brought Alfred Hitchcock to North America. Selznick’s influence and success, both commercial and critical, cannot be understated. In 1939, Gone with the Wind was released and cemented itself as one of the most enduringly popular films of all time (it retains the honor of most attended film in history; it has sold more tickets in its various releases than any other film has, or likely ever will). Imagine the Weinstein brothers’ prowess for critical acclaim crossed with Jerry Bruckheimer’s commercial instincts and you’ll have an idea of just how successful Selznick was.
Hitchcock’s partnership with Selznick was fruitful, but one fraught with tension and conflict. Hitchcock had access to better equipment and greater financial resources than he had while working in Britain -during the filming of The 39 Steps Hitch tried to buy the film rights to the bestselling novel on which Rebecca is based, but couldn’t afford the asking price -but in exchange had to cede some degree of creative control. Selznick sought to have as much creative influence over the film adaptation of Rebecca as one would expect an auteur director to. Yet, Rebecca remains a Hitchcock film through and through. Hitch’s later films are often cited as models of restraint, and they are, yet none of his better known films are as artfully suggestive as Rebecca. This is a film with no on screen violence (at least of the physical sort), no corpses and where the main antagonist has been dead before the picture even begins. Yet Rebecca’s presence and influence is felt in corner of the frame when the action moves to Manderly.
At the centre of the film you have a fantastic performance by Joan Fontaine. It’s hard not to smirk when characters describe the stunning actress as plain or dull. She’s gorgeous:always beautifully coiffed and constantly lit in that characteristic 1940s way that emphasizes her beauty at every turn. Instead, Fontaine sells the character’s naïveté in a way that makes it easy to buy that, while physically attractive, she lacks the internal light that Rebecca had shining through that drew admirers to her like moths to a flame.
Acting as proxy for the deceased Rebecca is the taciturn, and possibly psychotic, Mrs. Danvers. Her obsessive recollection of Rebecca’s grooming habits and the ritualistic way she shows the second Mrs. De Winter her things is as deliciously understated and creepy as anything in Hitch’s filmography. Mrs. Danvers could give Norman Bates a run for his money in the crazy department. Daphne Du Maurier’s bisexuality was one of the worst kept secrets of the day and the film does a good job underplaying the lesbian subtext enough to get it by the censors of the 1940s, while still making sure that there’s no doubt about the closeness of Danvers and Rebecca (though whether the relationship was unrequited or reciprocated is one of the film’s many mysteries).
One of the big bones of contention between Hitch and Selznick was the ending; Selznick wanted the smoke emanating from Manderly to form a giant “R” in the sky. It’s kind of odd that Selznick would insist on a change to the novel when fidelity to the source material had been his mandate from the beginning, much less one that would cast a definite supernatural overtone to the events of the film. Hitchcock wisely resisted and we have the more Earthly and thematically sound vision of Rebecca’s embroidered pillow as it’s immolated in the fire.
Given the obvious parallels between the Second Mrs. De Winter and Hitch himself – transported to a new locale in a foreign country, unfamiliar with the established protocols and butting heads with the established old guard- Rebecca also serves as a fascinating look into the psyche of Hitchcock. The fact that the narrator is never named, or never names herself, helps reinforce the Hitchock connection. That idea that someone is experiencing a loss of self, of identity, is yet another way in which the character parallels the man. Yes, that was present in the novel, but is so reinforced by the visuals that it does make one wonder. While it doesn’t cut as close to the bone as some his more personal films (Vertigo springs instantly to mind) it is still an eerie snapshot of this portion of Hitchcock’s life
I’m always surprised by the backhanded treatment Rebecca constantly gets from fans and critics. The film contains almost everything that people think of when they think Hitch: gothic atmosphere, suspense, the restraint and complex themes bubbling below the surface. At 2 hours and 11 minutes, it’s Hitch’s longest film, but it never feels like even a second of screen time is wasted. For cinephiles that value mood and restraint over action or fans of gothic atmopshere, Rebecca is a must watch.
Rebecca is over seventy years old, but you’d never guess from the pristine source material. There are far fewer of the expected blemishes on the souce material. Fine object detail is as crisp in the background as in the foreground. Even in the soft focus or dimly lit shots, there is no serious lack of detail. Contrast is spot-on, which is important for a film shot in black and white. I don’t know if Rebecca underwent any kind of serious restoration or if the source materials are just insanely well preserved, but the video quality on this Blu-ray is utterly breathtaking.
The DTS-HD Mono is as good as you could hope for, and I’m not damning it with faint praise by saying that. Dialogue is always clear and crisp, and the haunting score is well reproduced. MGM was wisely eschewed a pointless 5.1 remix. Rebecca is already wonderfully atmospheric without the use of gimmicky surround enhancements. The only real complaint is the lack of alternate language tracks or subtitles.
I’d expected that this wave of Hitchcock re-issues would be largely movie-only affairs, but MGM has put together an extremely generous and well-rounded supplemental package worthy of this great film.
Film critic and historian Richard Schickel may not be the most effusive or charismatic person to listen to but no one can deny that he knows his shit. The information in this audio commentary comes at a fairly steady pace starting with Hitchcock signing with Selznick and continues through critical analysis of the themes of the film and information on its production. Aside from his vast historical knowledge, Schickel had the privilege of interviewing the master himself while he was still alive, so he some genuine insight to offer. Schickel occasionally lapses into silence but with a film this hypnotic, who can blame him. I barely noticed when he did. This track can be a bit dry at times, a more lively speaker would have helped, but it’s still very worth listening to.
An Isolated Music and Effects track is included for purists, as well. Listening to it I was surprised by just how omnipresent the score is throughout the movie but so well integrated that I didn’t notice. It was actually a bit of revelation for myself as a modern viewer so used to big, brassy film scores that call attention to themselves.
The Making of Rebecca (28:08) is a well produced historical documentary. Being that Rebecca is nearly three quarters of a century old this featurette, as expected, lacks insight from people directly involved. Nevertheless, the group of actors and historians assembled really do a good job of painting a picture of the conflict between Hitch and Selznick. The documentary circles this theme so all the interviews directly address it. It makes for an incredibly focused and compelling documentary.
The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier (19:02) spends a bit too much time defining “gothic,” detailing Du Maurier’s family history and comparing Daphne to Hitch. I’d kind of hoped for a broader appreciation of her body of work and Rebecca’s place in it, rather than just a compare/contrast examination of the book and movie. Still, nicely produced and should be of particular interest to those viewers largely unfamiliar with Du Maurier.
My personal favourite supplement is some early Screen Tests (9:07) for the role of the second Mrs. De Winter. Margaret Sullivan, who performed the role in the radio play with Orson Welles and Vivian Leigh, Olivier’s choice for the role both test using the scene after the discovery of the broken china statue. These are absolute treasures. As good as both actresses tests are, especially Leigh’s, watching them reinforces my opinion that Hitchcock made the right choice in casting Fontaine.
A trio of radio play adaptations of the novel is also included: the 1938 (59:53) version with Orson Welles, the 1941 (59:31) adaptation presented by Cecil B. DeMille and the 1950 (1:00:22) version with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. If I got to have my way and recast the film, the idea of a film adaptation of Rebecca starring Orson Welles and Vivien Leigh is enough to give me chills. The plays are remarkably well preserved with only the 1938 version having serious and persistent audio flaws, which is perfectly forgivable given the vintage of the materials.
A couple of audio interviews with Peter Bogdanovich (4:20) and Francois Truffaut (9:15) interviewing the Master of Suspense on his craft and Rebecca. As much as I love Hitchcock’s droll public persona, it’s nice to hear him drop the façade to offer his sincere insights. Personal highlight: Hitchcock giving Bogdanovich a bit of a dressing down for his modern take on the characters in Rebecca, which is decidedly a Victorian story. The Truffaut interview has a translator interpreting every time either of the participants speak, which is quite distracting. Still, Truffaut’s work on Hitchcock is seminal and this clip is a tantalizing taste.
If I have one niggling complaint about the audio features, it’s that they are accompanied by only a blank screen. A photo montage or something would have been nice. Still, this is a very, very minor complaint. This disc is an absolute treasure trove of what must be very rare material.
Rounding out the package is the Theatrical Trailer (2:22) for the re-release. Not surprisingly, the film plays up the Selznick connection over Hitchcock’s involvement. The image quality is quite good but, oddly, the 4:3 image is oriented not in the centre of the screen, but to the far left.
Understandably, though still unfortunately, overshadowed by Hitchcock’s later films, Rebecca is a straight up masterpiece of gothic suspense. When discussions of the upper echelon of Hitch’s career come up, Rebecca is rarely included among such classics as Psycho or Rear Window. It’s a shame since Rebecca is every bit as deserving of tribute as those masterpieces are, and not the usual back handed “great, but not that great” it usually receives.
This MGM Blu-ray release is the perfect time to revisit the film and re-appraise it. While not quite as feature laden as the two-disc Criterion release from 2001, MGM has nonetheless put together a generous supplemental package. Couple that with the absolutely stellar audio and video quality and a low MSRP and you have an early, strong contender for Blu-ray reissue of the year. Rebecca is the first unequivocal “must buy” release of 2012.
nice review, chunk. since horror fans are, by and large, film fans in general, im all in favor of adding reviews for films like this, that may not be considered horror in the strictest sense of the word, but are definitely a huge part of the filmic tradition that lead up to where the genre is today. i watched the blu of Notorious last night, and had to resist feeling a little disappointed by the softness of the picture, despite the fact that it's clearly due to the way in which the film was shot, and thus a good thing that it's presented that way. But it's difficult to not be disappointed when one of your favorite films doesn't benefit all that much by an HD upgrade. So your comments about the picture quality on Rebecca have got me excited. I'll have to watch it soon.
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